And I thought that after writing No One Left Johanna Mason would get out of my head and leave me alone. Nope, no such thing, and now I'm off with the crazy idea of writing her Games, too. I'm posting now, although there isn't as much done in advance as I would like, to make sure this beats Mockingjay and any backstory changes that may be found there by a few weeks. And I guess that's it from me; enjoy.
It isn't the snoring that wakes me up, though it's the first thing I'm aware of once I blink my way to consciousness; a symphony of snores from an orchestra of snorers. It's only just getting light outside, but that little light is enough to let me see around the dormitory perfectly well. Good night vision is a key skill to develop here, especially if you like getting up early like I do.
I've been here two years. Not very long, compared to some of the others – poor Minty's been here since she was three, and she's only half a year younger than me. But I'm not the new girl anymore either. There've been at least three more additions to the community centre since Vince and I arrived here when I was thirteen and he was ten. At least three, because frankly I wasn't in the mood for counting people then, and I doubt my cousin was either.
Despite the fact that it's light outside and there's no chance of getting any more sleep, not with today being the day it is, I lie in bed for a while longer. Ears listening to the snoring; eyes open, staring at the bunk above me. The pale blue mattress – almost grey in this poor light - on wooden slats, engraved with years of graffiti from previous owners. My name sits proudly among them – carving your mark into the bed is a District Seven Community Centre tradition. Who knows, that piece of wood could be worth a lot of money someday. But probably not.
Finally I get sick of lying in bed and sit up slowly. Most of the others are heavy sleepers – it's another thing you learn fast if you want to get any decent sleep here – but we had a new girl move in a month ago and she hasn't learned to sleep through anything yet like the rest of us can. Luckily I know which floorboards creak and which don't, so I manage to get dressed with relatively little noise.
There's a groan and Minty sticks her blonde head over from the bunk above mine.
"It's too early Johanna," she says sleepily, stretching her arms so they hit the ceiling. "Go back to bed, like the rest of us sane people."
I shrug and pull my other sock on. "I know you can't sleep anyway, so stop complaining just because some of us can actually function before noon."
"How did you – never mind. And I don't mind people functioning before noon. It's when they routinely get up at obscenely early hours of the morning that they drive me crazy."
"I've shared a bunk with you for two years," I tell her, smiling slightly. "I know how you think. Anyway, this isn't obscenely early. At least there's light outside. Obscenely early is two o'clock in the morning when you haven't gone to bed yet. And you wonder why you can never get up in the mornings."
"No, that's obscenely late. It can't be early if you haven't gone to sleep yet. Speaking of sleep, I'm going back to bed before the new girl wakes up and has a spaz at us."
"Suit yourself. I'm going downstairs. See you at the Reaping, lazy."
"G'night Johanna," says Minty, smirking slightly as I roll my eyes, before lying back down and rolling over to face the wall.
She'll be dead to the world for a few more hours but won't get to sleep till twelve, as she would if she had a choice – our Reaping's at eleven thirty so Miss Woodshall will wake her up round ten. That's if the new girl doesn't wake her up by making ridiculously loud noises as she heads downstairs, of course. I was new once, but I'm sure I was never that bad.
Another good thing about getting up early is that there's barely anyone else around, which means that I don't have to wait for the showers. I'm halfway downstairs when I figure I might as well grab one now, so I double back into the dorm to grab my towel. Minty is already snoring softly, dead to the world.
The water is hot – another benefit of showering in the morning. In the evening the rush of people means that only the lucky few get hot water. The rest of us have to make do with cold showers or morning ones. Since I'm almost always one of the first ones up, it's not really much of a question.
Afterwards I hang my towel up to dry on the racks in the corridor and head back downstairs. Maybe I'm the first one up. I usually am, but I doubt any of our three twelve year olds can sleep today. No one ever can on their first Reaping.
As predicted, there are already people in the kitchen. Two of them, both shorter than I am. The smaller, facing me, has a head of bright red hair and blue eyes, with a face that has more freckles than actual skin – Otis, my cousin's best friend. The other is sitting opposite him at the table, so only the black-haired back of his head is showing, but there's only one person it could be. Even from behind, I can recognise my cousin from miles away.
"Morning Johanna," Otis says as he sees me come down. His mouth opens in a yawn – Otis is another of those who would sleep till noon if he had his way, but somehow never manages to.
Vince spins round in his seat, mouth settled in his trademark carefree grin.
"Hey, Jo. Surprised you weren't in here first."
I gesture at my still-wet hair. "I went to grab a shower before all the hot water gets used up in the stampede this evening. You should too, because I'm not listening to your complaints about water freezing on you again."
"Nah, I'll get one in the evening. Unlimited electricity today, remember? It's a day of celebration."
Vince is probably the only person in one of us real Districts who can say that phrase without any apparent sarcasm. Does he mean it, though? Probably not. My cousin's been through exactly what I have – I doubt he can be so truly sincere towards people.
Otis, who hasn't known Vince for as long as I have, raises his eyebrows in the usual response to my cousin's anti-sarcasm. Then he shrugs, obviously chalking it down to his general Vince-ness.
"I might take one later," he says. "Not this early, though. I'll wait till a few more people are out of bed first."
"You do know people will be more likely to walk in on you, right?" I ask him.
Otis shrugs. "No biggie. Anyway, there's this thing called a lock, Johanna. You may have heard of it."
I ignore his sarcastic tone. In a battle of words, I could out-sarcasm him any day.
"They never work properly. Anyway, New Girl will be sure to walk in on you."
Technically, we have a boys' bathroom and a girls' bathroom. In reality, everyone just uses whichever one's free. This combined with the faulty locks can lead to a lot of awkward moments, especially with us teenagers. You get used to it. Eventually.
Vince's expression stays mostly the same, but I can detect a hint of disapproval as he says, "Do you even know her real name?"
"No. Why should I know the name of a spoiled brat merchant girl who thinks she's better than us all just because of the colour of her hair? How I'd love to teach that Capitol-hugger a lesson."
I could, too. She might be a Centre girl now and work in the forest with the rest of us, but I've been swinging axes around since I was younger than Vince. I could easily take her in a fight.
"Hey!" Otis says, "I'm merchant class too, you know. So's Minty, and isn't she like your best friend?"
"Yeah, but that's different."
"You've been here for years. Minty's been here since she was a toddler. She has Merchant parents, but has grown up as a Centre kid. You two don't go around proclaiming you're better than everyone."
Otis rolls his eyes. "Yeah, because you really don't do that either."
"Of course I don't. I'm not that arrogant."
"No, you're just subtler about it. You forest folk think you're better than we are just 'cause you have dark hair and are poorer than us townies. Newsflash: being poor isn't something to be proud of."
I don't know why, but something in his tone makes me angry. "Being a miser and flaunting your wealth isn't something to be proud of, either."
Otis glares at me. "My parents never did that."
"I bet you wish they had, though. Then they wouldn't be dead."
Otis' already pale face goes a few shades paler, making his freckles stand out clearly against his skin. His hands, spread out across the tabletop, clench into fists.
"Johanna…" starts Vince. I ignore him.
"Oh, is poor little Otis upset? Sad about his poor dead parents? What a pity-"
Otis rises to his feet, hands still clenched. "Shut up! Just shut up! What is it with you? You act all perfectly normal, then bang! It's like you've gone completely mental! Why don't you ever think before you speak? You know what? I hope you get picked today; then I'll never have to see you again!"
He climbs over the bench he'd been sitting on. "I'm going to take a shower. See you later, Vince."
After Otis leaves, Vince looks at me, face completely transformed by the absence of his almost permanent grin. It's on moments like these that you can see how we're related – we share the same dark hair and olive skin, the same facial structure - even the same physical structure, if I'd been born a boy or him a girl. Other than our opposing standard facial expressions, only our eyes are different, and as my brown look into his green I feel the rage draining away from me.
"Why?" Vince asks me, sighing. "Why do you always feel the urge to provoke people?"
"Why are you so cheerful all the time?"
"Why not? And stop changing the subject."
"Exactly – why not? And stop lecturing me – I'm supposed to be the older one, remember?"
A smile returns to Vince's face, making him look almost normal again. It quickly disappears though, making me feel a pang of guilt. It's not often Vince loses that smile, and he somehow looks naked without it.
"I don't get it. You really hurt Otis, you know. You did it deliberately. This mean streak of yours is hurting you as much as it's hurting other people. I wish I could at least know why."
How can I tell him when I don't know myself? All I know is that every so often rage at the unfairness of it all builds up in me, and I want to hurt something, anyone, to make the pain go away. But Vince wouldn't understand it. We both went through the same experiences, yet he's Vincent and I'm Johanna, and the two of them are polar opposites.
"Vince, you know I'd tell you if I knew. But I don't. Anyway, I really am sorry about Otis. I know he's your friend."
"So you care about me, not him," Vince starts, before he sighs. "I'll tell him anyway. You're stressed about the Reaping, we all are. He is the most, I think. Normally he would have reacted differently too. But after his brother…"
And there's the normal Vince coming back, always ready to see the best in people, even me. On impulse, I reach across and hug him.
"What did you that for?"
"I'm your cousin, remember? We look out for each other. It is your first Reaping, after all."
He smiles back at me, completely back to old Vince, barriers back up but still lowered slightly in the way they always are for me.
"It this real? The great Johanna Mason worrying?" He crosses over to the window and look outside with exaggerated motions. "Nope, no pigs flying. Everything seems fine and dandy, too; no fireballs signalling the end of the world."
I laugh. "Shut up, Vince."
'Don't worry, your secret's safe with me."
"It better be."
"You know, that threatening look would work a lot better if I didn't know you," Vince says. "You don't need to worry about me – I only have one slip in the Reaping ball. Worry about yourself."
He probably has a point. Us Centre kids don't need Tesserae, so Vince will have the minimum number of slips in for all his life. I moved here when I was thirteen, after two years of taking three lots of Tesserae – one for Vince, one for me, one for my now-dead aunt Aspen. Now I have ten slips – ten out of many, maybe, but still ten times what Vince has.
"I'll be fine, little cousin," I say though. Vince may be the closest person to me but he's still only twelve, and I'm still almost his older sister. Some things stay firmly in my head. "If I've survived so far, I'll be sure to survive this one."
Vince grins cheekily at me. "Famous last words."
"…And so out of the Ashes of what remained of North America rose Panem, our Glorious State…"
I groan and tune out our Mayor's words, just as I've done for every Reaping I can remember. Before I turned twelve there wasn't room for me in the Square so we got to watch on big TV screens which made it easier to ignore the speeches, but now us potential tributes have to stand in the Square itself. Here, as Mrs Woodshall doesn't hesitate to remind us, 'the eyes of the nation are on us'.
I guess I can understand why she's strict on this – if the Peacekeepers think the children from the Community Centre aren't behaving well enough they can fire Mrs Woodshall and put in a proper, Capitol-trained Community Mistress. That would be very, very bad. We'd have to live under the strict conditions most of the other Community Centres have. Woodshall has her faults – many of them – but she's District Seven through and through and infinitely preferable to any of the Capitol-drones we'd get sent.
Minty nudges me. "Johanna, at least try to look like you're paying attention. I really don't want a lecture when we get home, in the time that we should be celebrating everyone getting through safe and sound."
"I don't know – wouldn't you rather New Girl got picked? Then she wouldn't annoy us anymore."
"Johanna! That's a horrible thing to say!" Minty sounds suitably shocked – too suitably shocked. Then she can't hold a straight face anymore and bursts out into giggles.
From the sixteen year old section in front of us, New Girl turns around, flicking straight blonde hair over her shoulder in an obviously practised movement, and glares at us. I give her a rude gesture in return.
"Yep, let's all pray she gets picked," Minty says, only half joking.
"Now, now, Minty, be quiet," I say. "We don't want to miss this scintillating lecture, do we?"
"Because that wasn't sarcastic at all…"
I'd go to retaliate but at that moment Mayor launches into his routine final few minutes and music begins to play.
If there's one good thing about our mayor, it's that at least he mostly varies his speeches. They're always spoken so reverently you can practically hear the capital letters on half the words and they always end with an invitation to sing the national anthem, but at least there's some variety. We had to watch a speech from District Nine in school a few years back and it was unbelievably boring.
I mouth along to the national anthem, not singing the actual words but a far more insulting version I made up after Peacekeepers tortured my father to death and did who knows what to my mother – she never bothered to tell us who the still-born girl she died delivering belonged to. I was nine then; the final version might have been made three years later after my older brother was killed because he owed the wrong people money. The language seems far too advanced for it to have been solely invented by a nine year old.
When the anthem is over Major introduces the Victors of District Seven. We've had five in total, and surprisingly all of them are still alive. The oldest is Olga Stevens, who hobbles in the lead across the stage. She's retired from mentoring now, leaving the four who remain to do most of the work.
Following her is Bastin something – no one knows his last name anymore – who acts as more of a District Seven leader than Major does. Then there's Blight, our resident drunkard; Willow, who managed to lace her Arena with poison and cry while everyone else died around her; and the ironically named red-headed Blue. These latter two are going to be mentoring this year. No other District can boast such an eclectic collection of Victors.
After the Victors are all assembled on stage, our new Capitol escort is introduced as Epoch Marianas.
"Welcome to the Sixty Ninth annual Hunger Games, yada yada yada," he says, fiery skin contrasting with long royal blue hair.
I immediately dislike him. Not only because he's Capitol – though really, that is a good enough reason for hate – but also due to the expression of bored disdain on his face. It's obvious he doesn't want to be here – well neither do we, but at least we're not spoiled brats determined to be unenthusiastic simply because we had to settle for second best – or Seventh.
"I'm privileged to be here in Seventh Heaven…"
Because that really isn't an overused pun at all.
He goes on for a bit longer, mixing up words, ignoring half of them and generally making the whole District hate him.
"We know this isn't great, but at can you at least go to the effort of making it sound dignified?" Minty mutters next to me. "This isn't a joke."
Finally the excruciating speech comes to an end. Epoch looks around for what to do next, then walks over to where a big glass bowl stands on a pink pillar.
"Ladies first, and may the odds be ever in your favour. Umm…"
He pulls a piece of paper out of the Reaping Jar and reads it to himself, lips moving silently.
"This year's female tribute for District Seven is… Johanna Mason?"
Whatever I did in a previous life, it must have been really, really bad.